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Labor Unrest under Cleveland

Grover Cleveland, a dedicated advocate of law and order, dealt harshly with labor unrest that developed during the depression of the 1890s.

  1. Coxey's Army. Jacob S. Coxey, a wealthy Ohio businessman and noted populist, had failed with earlier efforts to persuade public officials to act on behalf of unemployed citizens following the Panic of 1893. Coxey organized a march on Washington, D.C., starting from Massillon, Ohio, on March 25, 1894. The procession was met by cheering crowds in many cities as it worked its way eastward. However, some newspaper editors and elected officials were fearful of this mass of jobless men and their ultimate intentions. The army arrived at its destination on May 1 with 500 marchers, far less than Coxey's predicted 100,000. The event ended obscurely after Coxey and a few others were arrested for walking on the Capitol grass. Coxey's plea for government action on behalf of the unemployed yielded nothing. He had envisioned a vast program of federally sponsored public works, but neither the president nor Congress showed any inclination to respond. It would not be until the 1930s that support for such direct actions became more widely accepted. Coxey remained active in politics for many years, running unsuccessfully for a number of offices and serving as mayor of Massillon from 1931 to 1933.
  2. Pullman Strike. The Pullman Palace Car Company was the manufacturer of high-quality sleeping and lounge railroad cars. The plant was located in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, near Chicago. Wage cuts were ordered by management as a response to declining demand for the cars during the depression. However, rents in company-owned housing remained at their previous high levels. Owner George M. Pullman refused offers of arbitration, prompting the American Railway Union to call a strike in May 1894. This strike occurred immediately after Coxey's March and made some in the country fearful that widespread violence was in the cards. The union, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, refused to handle Pullman cars and the strike rapidly spread across the country. Gov. John Peter Altgeld of Illinois refused management requests to summon the militia and sympathized openly with the strikers. In July, a federal circuit court issued an injunction, ordering the workers back to their jobs, based upon the power of the government to keep the mails moving and regulate interstate commerce. Debs refused to comply with the injunction and was arrested (and later imprisoned). After a mail train was derailed, possibly by union activists, Cleveland followed Attorney General Richard Olney's suggestion to send in 2,500 federal soldiers. In the face of such overwhelming force, the strike collapsed within a week. From the standpoint of organized labor, the Pullman strike was more troubling than earlier confrontations. It was evident that the Sherman Antitrust Act had been transformed into a weapon to be used against unions, not against the trusts. Further, the use of "blanket injunctions" against labor had been a resounding success and would be frequently employed in the future.